FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 1, 2023 |
Short of lying, bullshitting involves communicating something with little to no regard for the truth, established knowledge, or genuine evidence. Although most people believe bullshit is relatively harmless, part of what makes bullshit compelling and appealing is that it often sounds beneficial, confirming, and credible. Four experiments in persuasion suggest that bullshit can have more influence than both lies and, in some cases, evidence-based frames of the very same information.
Claptrap, baloney, buffoonery, codswallop, empty-talk, garbage, hogwash, nonsense, poppycock, flapdoodle, flim-flam, flummery—and often better referenced as bullshit—our world appears to be full of it. Yet, what exactly is bullshit? Bullshit is what emerges when people communicate with little to no regard for truth, established knowledge or genuine evidence (Frankfurt, 1986; Petrocelli, 2018, 2021a). Bullshitting behavior involves a broad array of rhetorical strategies that help us sound like we know what we’re talking about in order to impress others, persuade others, influence others, or explain things in an area in which our obligations to provide our opinions exceed our knowledge in that area (Cheyne & Pennycook, 2016; Littrell et al., 2020; Petrocelli, 2018, 2021a). Bullshit is often abstract, lacking in sources and logic, or riddled with acronyms and business-speak jargon. Part of what makes bullshit compelling and appealing is that it often sounds beneficial, confirming and credible—and may thereby be persuasive.
Much of the empirical research on bullshitting has dealt with the when question—that is, understanding when people are likely to bullshit us. Here, I offer a closer focus on the evidence that addresses part of the why question, that is, understanding the potential functions of bullshit. If bullshit is an undesirable communicative substance, why do people engage in the behavior so very often? Better understandings of when and why people bullshit us should place us in a much better position to detect and dispose of this unwanted social substance.
Bullshitting Isn’t Lying
Bullshit is not the same as lying (Frankfurt, 1986). Although the liar and bullshitter are both deceptive in that they both appear concerned with the truth, only the liar is actually concerned with truth, and the bullshitter is not. When someone lies to us, their objective is to get us to believe something they don’t believe is true. If your colleague were to say something—and he knows perfectly well it just isn’t so—then he is lying. Whereas the liar doesn’t believe what she says is true, the bullshitter has no idea as to whether or not it’s true, and frankly, doesn’t care. In fact, sometimes—just by chance or accident—the bullshitter says something that is true, but even she wouldn’t know it, because she’s not concerned about the truth, established knowledge, or evidence that may otherwise support her claims.
An important difference between lying and bullshitting involves the social reactions to these two forms of communication. When people lie to us, we’re very unhappy with them and they often pay great consequences for their lies. People tend to react to the lies with strong disdain and contempt, and there may be severe consequences for being caught in a lie (e.g., “She’s a damn liar. That woman should be fired!”). In the case of bullshitting, the social consequences are much less severe (Petrocelli, Silverman, & Shang, 2023). The bullshitter may communicate the very same message as the liar. Yet, because she doesn’t really know what she’s talking about, nor does she really care what the evidence suggests, we typically pass-off her bullshit as a mild social offense (e.g., “Oh, he’s just bullshitting again.”). We assume his bullshit is harmless—but, this is where we can’t be more wrong.
Insidious Bullshit Hypothesis
Although bullshitting is often evaluated less negatively than lying (Petrocelli, Silverman, & Shang, 2023), Frankfurt (1986) proposed that bullshit is more damaging to society than the lie. Not only by definition is there likely to be more bullshit than lies in the world, Frankfurt believed that pursuit of truth is of paramount importance—and although the liar’s concern for truth is a corrupt one, it is less bad than the bullshitter’s total disregard for truth.
Through my research in my Bullshit Studies Lab (at Wake Forest University), we’ve considered some additional possibilities that test this hypothesis. First, there are reasons to believe that bullshit may be more influential and persuasive than both evidence-based communications and lies. Second, there are also reasons to suspect that bullshit may interfere with memory more than lies, and thereby, have a greater impact on what people believe to be true.
Persuasiveness of Bullshit
In our first experiment, we were interested in determining whether or not bullshit has a noteworthy influence on attitudes and beliefs when examined in light of a traditional persuasion procedure (Petrocelli, 2021b). Over 500 college students were led to believe there was a new policy being proposed, by university administrators, which would require seniors to pass a comprehensive exam in their major area in order to graduate. Students were led to believe we were interested in surveying their thoughts and opinions about the proposed policy. Half of the students read persuasive arguments in favor of the exam policy that were either strong (e.g., Students who graduate from schools with comprehensive exams earn more in their starting salaries.) or weak (e.g., Duke University is doing it.). Half of the students were also assigned to either a bullshit frames condition that prefaced the arguments with comments suggesting little to no interest in available and genuine evidence (e.g., “I believe there is some research on this issue, but I’m not really concerned with the evidence.”) or an evidence-based frames condition that prefaced the arguments with comments suggesting considerable interest in the relevant evidence (e.g., I’m really concerned with the evidence concerning this issue.”).
Our analysis showed clear evidence of the traditional Argument Quality effect, but only within the evidence-based frame condition—it suggests a cuing of central route processing (whereby persuasion can occur only when the arguments themselves are compelling). However, the lack of a traditional Argument Quality effect within the bullshit frame condition suggests that bullshitting may cue what is usually referred to as peripheral route processing (whereby persuasion can occur when peripheral cues like the number of arguments or attributes of the communicator appear compelling; see Figure 1).
Attitude and Thought Favorability means by Argument Quality and Argument Frame (Experiment 1); error bars represent +/-1 standard error.
From another angle, relative to evidenced-based frames, bullshit frames appeared to weaken the potency of strong arguments, yet strengthen the potency of weak arguments. Such findings are quite remarkable given the arguments themselves are the very same—they only differ in what they signal about the intentions of the communicator as they pertain to their concern for truth and evidence.
Theoretically, there are two general routes to persuasion of which the route depends on the ability, opportunity, and mental resources one has at the times, as well as their general motivation to think about the content of the message. When people follow the central route to persuasion, because they have the ability, opportunity and motivation to think about a persuasive communication, they tend to listen carefully and think about the quality of the arguments presented. When people follow the peripheral route to persuasion, because they are either not motivated, or lack the capacity, to think about the arguments in a persuasive communication, they may be swayed by more superficial cues (e.g., source credibility, source attractiveness, nonverbal cues, number of arguments in the message—not their quality).
We conducted another experiment, this time the attitude object was student feelings about an extended 2-week Spring Break—an idea most students like (Petrocelli, 2021b). We tried to persuade them this wasn’t a very good idea (lower attitude scores in this experiment indicated more persuasion) with persuasive arguments allegedly provided by attractive or unattractive sources (using pictures from the Chicago Face Database).
Because evidence-based frames appear to prompt central route processing in our first experiment, we expected Argument Quality to matter only when participants were presented with evidence-based frames of the arguments. But, because Source Attractiveness typically operates as a peripheral route cue, we expected Source Attractiveness to matter only when participants were presented with bullshit frames of the arguments. As expected, Argument Quality made a difference but only when arguments were provided in the evidence-based frames; it didn’t matter when the arguments were provided in bullshit frames. What did matter in bullshit frames was the peripheral cue of attractiveness; attractive sources were more influential than unattractive sources when arguments were provided in bullshit frames, but the difference in attractiveness didn’t appear to matter when arguments were provided in evidence-based frames.
Thought Favorability means by Argument Frame and Argument Quality, and by Argument Frame and Source Attractiveness; error bars represent +/-1 standard error. Lower scores indicate more persuasion that a longer spring break is a bad idea (Petrocelli, 2021b).
Bullshit Sleeper Effect
We explored two additional ways in which bullshit might affect attitudes and beliefs about what is true. In our third experiment, we borrowed from a traditional sleeper effect procedure. A sleeper effect is a persuasive influence that increases, rather than decays, over time; Albarracín, et al., 2017; Cook & Flay, 1978; Priester et al., 1999). The easiest way to demonstrate a sleeper effect is by providing people positive information about a novel attitude object (e.g., political candidate) and showing that they express relatively positive attitudes (at least initially). Later, people are provided with contrary, negative information about the source of earlier information. In response, social perceivers tend to discount the initial information and adjust their attitudes downward (i.e., less positive). However, with nothing more than the passage of time, there tends to be an increase in persuasion, such that attitudes return to a more positive valence. The sleeper effect is usually explained as a differential decay in memory—people forget the discounting cue sooner than they forget the initial persuasive message, such that the initial message retains a more persistent hold on attitudes (Pratkanis et al., 1988).
In our experiment, we presented over 200 participants with an advertisement promoting multiple, desirable aspects of a fictious pizza (Petrocelli, Seta, & Seta, 2023). Attitudes about the pizza were measured, and sure enough, they were overwhelmingly positive. Later on, participants were randomly assigned to one of three discounting cue conditions—one third were informed that a consumer protection agency revealed that some of the information in the advertisement contained lies, one third were informed that the advertisement contained bullshit, and one third received no discounting cue at all. Attitudes about the pizza were measured once again, and as expected, the attitudes of participants who received lies or bullshit were significantly reduced (see Figure 3). When our participants returned to our lab 10-14 days later, they were reminded of the attitude object that we asked them to read about. Then, we measured their attitude towards Ciao’s Pizza one last time.
Attitude means for Attitude Assessment by Discounting Cue Condition (Petrocelli, Seta, & Seta, 2023).
After the delay in time, attitudes in both the lie and bullshit conditions increased. However, what we found most interesting was consistent with what we’d expect from the insidious bullshit hypothesis. Not only did the bullshit discounting cue result in more positive attitudes over time compared to the lie discounting cue, but it returned attitudes to a level of positivity that we would expect if our participants had never been given a discounting cue at all—and, in a way that the lie discounting cue did not. Because bullshitting appears to produce a stronger sleeper effect for unwarranted attitudes than does lying, and attitudes are relevant to thinking and behaving, it serves as further support for the insidious bullshit hypothesis.
Bullshit Illusory Truth Effect
Our final experiment borrowed from a procedure used to demonstrate an illusory truth effect—the phenomenon that repeated statements are easier to process and remember (i.e., processing fluency) compared to new statements, regardless of whether repeated statements were truthful (Hasher et al., 1977). When something becomes perceptually fluent it is more easily mentally processed. If we’ve seen something before, it’s easier to recognize, it’s easier to mentally process, and we often take the relative ease to signal truth.
It is relatively easy to produce an illusory truth effect (sometimes referred to as a repetition-induced memory) by first exposing people with everyday stimuli (e.g., names, statements) repeatedly. If an individual reads or hears the statement “Our sun is a red giant star.” many times over, they are more likely to believe that statement then the truthful statement “Our sun is a yellow dwarf star.”. The initial exposure sets contrast with new information not previously processed. In other words, previously processed information is relatively more perceptually fluent than new information. This “difference” in perceptual fluency is confused for truth. The illusory truth effect can be pushed even further, as empirical research has shown that even if individuals should know better, they still fell victim to the phenomenon (Fazio et al., 2015).
In our final experiment, we used stimuli such as “Steinbeck is the last name of the author of The Agony and the Ecstasy.” (false; it’s Stone). We first just asked over 300 participants to rate how interesting they found each statement for the purpose of exposing them to some information that would be repeated again later. Later we asked participants how true they believed similar statements to be. Some of the statements were repeated, some were new, and some of the statements were false, and some were true. Our participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions in which they learned 1) the author of the statements was instructed to construct statements whereby they knew half to be true and half to be false (liar), 2) the author was instructed to include statements whereby they knew half to be true and half without any real concern for truth, genuine evidence, or existing knowledge (they didn’t know, nor care, if they were true; bullshitter), or 3) the author was simply instructed to compile a list of statements but that half of the statements are true and half are false (control).
When our participants were informed about some of the information being false after the initial exposure, we observed a drop in truth ratings for the control and liar conditions that was not observed for the bullshitter condition (see Figure 4). Once again, these results are consistent with the insidious bullshit hypothesis—not only were all of the items false, but bullshit exposure did not afford the same corrective attempt observed by the liar and control conditions. The very same pattern was observed for the items that happened to actually be true. There was an overall increase in truth rating for true information—and that was good—but the differences between those exposed to bullshit, versus honesty and lies, remained.
Mean truth ratings for by Author Condition (Petrocelli, Rice, & Shang, 2020).
Despite the unfortunate actions and consequences of seemingly so many victims of bullshit (e.g., Edgar Welch, Washington, D.C., Comet Ping Pong pizzeria gunman), people often think that bullshit is harmless. Yet, data from our Bullshit Studies Lab demonstrates through four controlled experiments that bullshit can be more influential than lies, and under some conditions, evidence-based information. These results provide support for Frankfurt’s original insidious bullshit hypothesis, as well as a preliminary answer to the why question (i.e., why people engage in so much bullshitting behavior)—although bullshit may serve as a detriment of those who receive, it can work in favor of the individual bullshitter. A just-desert would appear to be—if it be true—that bullshit may get one to the top, but it never lets one stay there (Sadhguru, 2016). Downstream, negative consequences for bullshitters is a topic that awaits empirical attention. Until then, it appears that a little concern with the truth, access to readily available evidence, and perhaps treating bullshit as false as we do lies—until otherwise supported by evidence—will make all the difference.
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